I have wondered for some time how the NBA Development League might be improved, but the event that really pushed me towards a solution was the signing of the Clippers' 2nd round draft pick David Michineau overseas. Why? Well, the D-League is supposed to be a home for players on the level right below the NBA, players who want to make it in the "big leagues". Players like David Michineau. But because of the D-League's severe limitations, most unready NBA draft picks are "stashed" in Europe. While this strategy can work effectively, it also signifies that the D-League as it currently stands is ineffective in its main purpose. Here is a step-by-step proposal for the D-League's elevation to a true minor league, fully synchronized with the NBA.
Expansion to 30 Teams
Right now, there are only 22 teams in the D-League, which is simply too few for the role that it is trying to fill. The D-League is the NBA's best attempt yet at creating a true minor league system, but in order to match those of other leagues, it needs to expand to 30 teams. Every NBA team would have a direct one to one association with a D-League team, which would operate independently in a lot of matters, but would be under the umbrella NBA franchise.
Expanding the D-League to 30 teams would not be an easy task for a variety of reasons, but none of them is unsurmountable. The first problem is simple: time. It will probably take several years to create new teams, purchase or build stadiums, and generally establish the infrastructure of new franchises. While the D-League expansion should happen as quickly as possible, it is an important development, and should be executed well, not rushed.
The second issue for a single affiliate system is monetary. NBA teams don't necessarily want to invest in a D-League team, possibly due to the money involved. Simply put, that shouldn't be an issue. Quick online research shows that it only costs 4 million dollars to buy a D-League team, and though part of the overall improvement for the league (discussed later) involves raising D-League players' salaries and benefits, a 15-man roster making around $100,000 a year per player is frankly a pittance to NBA owners. There is a new NBA TV contract worth $24 billion and even bench players are making $10 million a year, so an entire roster of professional level players for $1-2 million seems pretty cheap.
The final and perhaps most serious obstacle facing expansion is lack of interest in the product. Right now, nobody cares much about the D-League, and the main way to watch their games is on YouTube. However, if the D-League expands to 30 teams and salaries are raised, the level of its players will likely improve, and interest will rise. Should each NBA team have an affiliate, fans will also hopefully start to follow some of their younger players sent down to develop. There are plenty of baseball and hockey fans who follow minor league teams closely, whether they be strong supporters of the major league team or prospect lovers. The same thing should happen with the D-League.
Having each team be a one-on-one affiliate would change the D-League substantially. For example, instead of players signing with the league itself and then getting drafted by teams, they would sign contracts with the teams themselves. In order to keep options open most of the contracts would be short term, but this would nonetheless enable D-League teams to really be teams, and have some continuity from year to year.
Another part of this expansion would be the creation of a mirror conference system to the NBA. There would be a Southeast Division of the D-League in the Eastern Conference, a Central Division, etc. Over time, rivalries between D-League teams could start to form, some based on the enmities between their respective NBA teams, and others centered solely on the D-League teams' own competitions. Fans would become invested in rivalry games, as would the teams themselves, making the league much more interesting.
The goal would be to have 30 D-League teams by 2020, and then expand all the history and rivalries from there. But in order to do so, the D-League will need to connect better with their NBA counterparts.
Additional NBA Roster Spots for D-League Players
As it stands at the moment, NBA teams have 15 roster spots, with the last two players not suiting up for games. If one is sent down to the D-League, they still count against that player limit. Being in the D-League means that they are not available to the NBA team on a moment's notice, which is why some players never get sent down: their coaches want as much flexibility as possible. The solution to this is simple. Create two extra spaces on each NBA team specifically to be used on D-League players.
These spots would (probably) be filled with younger players who need playing time to develop, mostly undrafted free agents and second round picks. The addition of these spots would then free up space (14th and 15th roster signees) for veterans. Shifting to the D-League would also help the younger players substantially, as many of them currently sit on the bench of their NBA team and only participate in practices, which can be quite infrequent depending on the team. Practice doesn't help prospects improve as much as real playing time, nor does it provide as great an opportunity to prove their worth, which often leads to their quickly falling out of the NBA (an example is Willie Warren, a Clippers second round draft pick in 2010 who sat on the bench most of the year, only played in 6 D-League games, and was waived the following season).
Should an NBA team decide that they want to call up one of their two D-League players, they would need to make room on their regular roster-- if full. Preferably, however, the two players would remain in the D-League for most of the season, since the whole point is to give them maximum playing time and experience in real game situations.
If an NBA team wants to send other players on their 15-person regular roster to the D-League, they can do so of course, but these players would earn their regular NBA salaries, and still occupy their spot on the NBA roster (how it works now). They could also do the reverse, and bring up to the NBA another D-League player (not assigned to one of the two spots).
Here's how this scenario would play out with David Michineau. Instead of "stashing" him in Europe, he would have signed with the Clippers (probably on a minimum deal) and taken up one of these roster spots while playing for the affiliate D-League team. What would this accomplish? For one thing, while European club basketball is of very good quality, the rules and officiating are different from the NBA, as is the three point line. Getting Michineau in the D-League, which plays similarly to the NBA, would speed his development into an NBA-caliber player. The Clippers also could give specific instructions to the D-League team on what skills he should be working on, how many minutes to play him, and so on. That way, the Clippers would have a much greater influence over how Michineau's career aligns with their goals and strategies.
Another team that these changes could have benefitted is the Toronto Raptors. They infamously picked Bruno Caboclo in the first round in 2014—a player who was "two years away from being two years away". He has since spent most of his time in the D-League, but taken up a spot on the Raptors' roster in the process. The creation of a new roster space in the D-League would have enabled Toronto to sign someone else to actually play on their team while giving Caboclo needed playing time and experience. The hope with the two additional roster spots is that it will keep more young and promising players in the NBA and D-League circuit instead of in Europe or China. Complementary to this change would be an increase in D-League salaries and compensations.
Raising D-League Salary and Other Accommodations
Right now, the average D-League salary is around $20,000 per year, with a $19,000 minimum. Compare this to the NBA, where the minimum deal for rookies is $500,000 a year, and the maximum deals can go up to an incredible $30,000,000 a season. Most of the better European leagues and Chinese leagues also offer salaries far higher than the D-League, with individual salaries extending to several million dollars. All this means is that it is very tempting for undrafted American college players to go overseas and garner more money than to stay in the D-League and play for virtually nothing. Again the solution is simple: raise the D-League salaries to make them more comparable to rival leagues.
The jump would not have to be extreme: a minimum of $70,000 a year, along with the current housing and insurance benefits, would probably prove sufficient. For more established players, this number could go up to around $150,000, which is still far below the NBA minimum salary. Once again, the jump in the NBA salary cap due to the new TV deal should make this increase in salaries no more than a drop in the bucket for NBA teams, who would need to substantially support their affiliates in the early going.
Along with such an increase in base salary, other accommodations should be provided. D-League players currently travel in poor-quality buses and airplanes, and have far inferior training and conditioning services. This is inexcusable for professional athletes one level below the NBA. D-Leaguers do not need to get all the fancy and expensive treatment that NBA players receive, but improved traveling accommodations and better training facilities and staff are not impossible goals. This also would help to keep top college talent in the NBA circuit instead of dismissing them to Europe, where they often fall off the radar.
Look, most American players would rather stay in the United States anyway. They speak the language, they understand the culture, and they are one step closer to the NBA, which is the ultimate goal for most professional players. If the D-League can raise compensation to even close to what foreign leagues offer, the amount of young talent staying stateside would soar. The opportunity to play in the same organization as NBA legends, to know that NBA scouts and front office types are looking at you every game, well, that would be tough to pass up.
When more American players remain in the D-League instead of going overseas, quality will rise, making the product more attractive for fans, who see bigger names from college and either attend the games or watch online. And as more fans fill the seats, they create a better atmosphere for players, who will then be more likely to play in the league. The cycle would continue until hopefully the D-League is one of the best non-NBA basketball leagues in the world.
Creating a Disabled List for NBA Teams
An additional way to utilize the D-League is as injury rehabilitation. NBA players who have been sidelined for a while can be assigned to the D-League and play a few games to get back into basketball readiness without plunging into the NBA right away. And NBA players have done so—just not frequently, for two primary reasons. First, the D-League is much less glamorous and lower in quality than the NBA. With any luck, and the full support of NBA teams, all the other changes will improve the quality of play and attract more fans to games, which will make it easier for NBA players to rehab in a more productive, fulfilling way. Second, teams don't want to waste a roster spot on a player who can't actually suit up for their team. This is where the disabled list would come in. With a two player maximum, it would require the players to miss at least 10 games in order to qualify.
Let's say Derrick Rose badly sprains his ankle, and is going to be out several weeks. Instead of being down a player, the Knicks could put him on the disabled list and sign someone else to a 10-game contract (or call up one of their D-League assignees). Once Rose is ready to return, instead of throwing him right away into NBA action and possibly costing them a win or two as he adjusts, he could play in the D-League for as long as necessary. The Knicks would be in no pressure to rush him back, and Rose would not need to start performing at a high level immediately. Once primed for NBA basketball, Rose would come off the disabled list and someone on the 15-man roster would have to be removed.
Another great advantage this would provide is an increase in marketing and attendance for D-League games. While not every contest would feature a rehabbing NBA player, the system would be used frequently enough to draw real crowds. Being able to see Derrick Rose play with the Westchester Knicks for only 15 dollars sounds mighty attractive, and he could potentially be matched up against another rehabbing guard on the other team-- yet another way of getting NBA fans more interested in their D-League affiliates.
The D-League has continued to grow its product at a steady pace, and has become increasingly important in recent years. But I think it could be so much more than what it is right now. The changes laid out here—expansion to 30 teams, salary raises, and additional roster spots for development and rehabilitation-- should make the D-League a proper minor league system for the NBA, one that would be invaluable to its success and further development. These modifications are substantial, but I believe they can be done, and more importantly, that they should be done. This process will take time, but I am confident that it would transform the D-League into something far greater than what it is today.